The day I had a panic attack
Suddenly I felt bad. My head was spinning. "What is happening to me?" I asked myself. "Am I dying? Am I having a heart attack?" I felt worse. I started to sweat profusely. I placed my hand on my face. I felt the sweat trickling. "Lord, am I really going to die," I thought. I was on an aeroplane. I could not move. I could not have a glass of water without bringing this to the attention of others.
I thought of calling the flight attendant, but I was too embarrassed. After a few minutes of realising that my condition was not getting worse, I told myself that this is a panic attack. Yes, a panic attack. Yes, a psychiatrist having a panic attack.
On convincing myself that I was having a panic attack, I started to deal with it. Here is what I did.
1. Calm down. I relaxed myself and did not allow my anxiety to get out of control.
2. Control thoughts. The thoughts were flooding me. I am going to die. Do something. Call for help. This may get worse. Yes, I felt I was about to lose control. I had to quickly take control of my thoughts. In a panic attack, if you allow the thoughts to get out of control, you lose control and will not be able to do the things to calm yourself and deal with the panic attack.
3. Self-talk. I told myself that it was not a heart attack. I know I am in good health. There was no chest pain that was radiating to the left arm. This was certainly a panic attack. I reassured myself that panic attacks can be controlled and I won't die from it.
4. Deep-breathing exercise. I always teach my patients deep-breathing exercises. Now it was my turn to apply it. I slowly breathed in to the count of four. I held my breath to the count of four. I slowly breathed out to the count of four. Wow, I started to feel better. I am getting better. This is indeed a panic attack. I continued with the deep-breathing exercise. I could feel the difference. I felt even better. My panic attack is going. I continued deep breathing for about 15 minutes. The sweating stopped. The dizziness went. I felt normal again. It worked.
5. Relaxation. Although I was not tense. I did the muscle relaxation exercise. This took a little more concentration but I focused on the muscles of my body starting from my head working down to my feet and I relaxed my muscles, and I felt even better.
6. Distraction. This works in dealing with panic attacks. I started to imagine myself in a relaxed situation. I pictured myself on a beach. It was a lovely sunny day. I was enjoying myself. Shortly after that, I started to read a book. In-between, I did my deep-breathing exercise. After about another 20 minutes, I took full control of my panic attack and I was back to feeling normal.
7. Reassured myself. I reassured myself that I was fine. I reminded myself that it was a panic attack and this will not reoccur. It had nothing to do with flying. This occurred because the day before my flight I was all keyed up trying to clear my desk at work and I had very little sleep. It worked and I was able to take another two-hour flight to complete my trip without any problems.
8. I now understand. Yes, I now understand what others go through when they have a panic attack. I now realise how frightening an experience it is. I am glad that I tried the steps to control the panic attack. They worked. I did not become incapacitated and I was able to complete my trip. I also did it without taking medication. I controlled my panic attack and so can you. Please try these steps.
Dr Wendel Abel is a consultant psychiatrist and head, Section of Psychiatry, Dept. Of Community Health and Psychiatry, University of the West Indies; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.